We landed in Copenhagen in the dark. The estimated eight hour flight from Washington DC to Denmark’s capitol city was scheduled to arrive at dawn, but, due to some hasty trade winds, delivered us nearly an hour before sunrise. My great-grandfather Canute Breinholt emigrated from Denmark to the United States in 1912. A mason by trade, I remember him rehearsing stories of his youth as he built from brick and mortar our family’s BBQ. The chair, silver box and wooden shoes we’re all situated in our home as tiny clues of his craftsmanship and culture. But fleeing the region in advance of the Russian Revolution, our boy of 8 remembers only the tides pushing their ship further into the sea.
The moon illuminated an archipelago of islands on our descent, and the “flaming baton twirlers” I overheard a young passenger exclaim, of the sum twenty, forty-five foot high wind turbines that rise from the sea 3.5 kilometers off the shoreline. Like palace guards, Middelgrunden, the world’s first and largest offshore wind farm, in concert with 12 offshore wind farms throughout the maritime, are responsible for generating 42% of the electricity to Denmark’s 5.5 million residents. Indeed, the historic Danish Energy Agreement of 2011 (which passed the center-left parliament with a consensus of 171 of 179 members) puts Denmark on the path to be fossil fuel free by 2050. As with all political trends, we wondered less about how that development occurred, and more specifically if it can be sustained? As a transient Parliamentary Monarchy ebbs and flows, major projects and policies must transcend legislative periods. Customs, however, are implicit in the psychology of this seafaring people who’ve united to control their waters for nearly 600 years.
The Metro will transport me from my hotel at the Crown Plaza Copenhagen Towers to Denmark’s Parliament, and my interview with Denmark’s Minster of Energy, Martin Lidegaard. The 12 miles of track carry an estimated 54 million passengers per year—without a driver—and is the first in the world of its kind. The light metro wiggles back and forth every 14 minutes across the Orestad (The Sound), to and from the airport, connects suburbs to cities, and further still into neighboring countries like Sweden. And for the past decade the merrily silent rail system has been doing so, you guessed it, compliments of the wind. For the Danes knew how the winds blew, and the scant 8 minutes between me and town is a ride not just through suburban communities of glass and chrome, but through a continuum of time where renewables, so critical to a Viking, are every bit as relevant to a contemporary Dane.
The promise of 55 degrees in Fall is the equivalent of a near-perfect spring day anywhere else in the world. There is almost no fluctuation in temperatures between night and day, and the warm trade winds that blow from the west keep it so. I stroll along the Stroget, the longest pedestrian shopping street in the world, on to Christiansborg Palace, the modern seat of Denmark’s Parliament. No credentials or surveillance cameras are necessary here, as double glass doors open to a government of transparency. The reception area is furnished in Danish Modern, and the minimalist approach isn’t lost on a country whose sophistication in engineering starts with Legos: a Danish export since 1949; whose colorful, interlocking plastic bricks teach every child how to build and create. In fact, the minister and I were kids ourselves when in 1973 the Arab Oil Embargo set off a worldwide economic recession. I was commissioned to turn off all the lights at night in my Los Angeles home as one part of a California initiative to conserve energy. In doing so I learned to negotiate with siblings, create incentives and cooperate. I wondered what memories the Minster of Energy had of this period?
“We had car-free Sundays here. My parents may have found that limiting, but my memory is that it was quite a nice experience,” the Energy Minister says, musing how he and his comrades could commandeer the roads to expand their childhood playground. “It was the beginning of a huge public campaign on energy conservation. The ‘Extreme Green Makeover’ began with District Heating. Electricity, for instance, produces hot wastewater. If you use that wastewater to heat your house, you have free heating. So converting from oil to coal, and re-cycling the energy, was the first step. Today 65% of all homes in Denmark are equipped with District Heating.”
Henrik Stiesdal, responding to the oil crisis, built the 1st modern wind turbine out of scrap material in the backyard of his parent’s Danish farmhouse. Today, there are 100,000 wind turbines throughout the world, 50% of which are in Denmark. How was it possible to whisk such an expansive initiative through ever-changing legislative periods? “It’s a good question. I still don’t really believe it,” Martin says, comporting himself. “Two reasons. First, is our recent history. The first 40 years of the modern wind turbine proved very economically successful. Second, is our ancient history. Denmark’s relationship with the wind is a deep and intrinsically Danish tradition to take care of our climate, work with our environment, and to protect and ultimately preserve our culture. Once you build a windmill, you pay it off in 20 years, and then you have free electricity. With coal, gas or nuclear power plants the cost is eternal.”
How is the your green culture incentivized by your taxes? We hear that automobile tax is upwards of 100%? “We tax people like hell. But we tax them because we want to pay for our welfare state. Instead of private insurances, our country’s wealth comes in part from income, automobile, and electricity taxes that pay for our hospitals, private schools, roads and universities that are entirely free! Furthermore, we provide tax relief for those who work with rather than against nature. Solar cells, for instance, have doubled in just the last year. Ultimately, everyone is held accountable for his or her part in the green reformation.”
The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said, “Political thinking must be based upon a tangible reality” and certainly your turbines could have been concealed from view. Does their visibility promote a cultural identity, not unlike the religious cross so important to your ancestors, to inspire ideological immunity? “Yes. They are a symbol of progress. But the Danes are intrinsically practical, economic people. No symbol, however romantic or ideological, can replace common sense. This is what has and continues to unite us. The industry, unions, green organization and citizens are united by this standard of practicality.”
“Winning in the interior what was lost on the exterior” was a popular slogan in 1864 when Denmark lost its southern territories to Germany. Yet when Germany’s parliament, the Bundestag, approved their energy transition last year, they called upon Denmark for clues on how to re-vamp this key sector from the ground up. Is consensus, and cooperation a lesson that can only be learned from losing a war? The minister laughs. “I really think your researchers have done a good job because Denmark was one of the biggest nations of the world 500 years ago. I just read 3 novels about the Vikings who by rights were strong, forceful, viral minded men who controlled the Baltic Sea and the World. But, listen. Since then we’ve been steadily losing our geography. Energy, however, is an area where we are invited to the United States, China, United Kingdom, and Japan to instruct and share the Danish case.”
Resistance to wind farms in Germany is so great that they must be built beyond the horizon line. When you speak to China, India and the US about re-creating their energy sectors do you advise coercion, (automobile taxes, gas prices), providing incentives (tax breaks for participating in energy cooperatives) or a combination of both? “This advice depends on circumstances like tax level, geography, political climate and the like. But ownership by far is the greatest incentive. I’m so damn tired of the way we calculate these things. Being economically invested in a wind cooperative makes fiscal sense. We pay into a cooperative for the first 10-15 years which pays for the cost of the turbine. After that, the wind and electricity is free. It’s a fantastic story! This isn’t about pure altruism, its common sense. Political good is not copacetic with economic bad.”
Will Denmark, in a final analysis, reform or revolutionize the world’s energy sector? “Had Martin Luther King begun his famous speech I Have a Nightmare instead of I Have A Dream I question if he would have ignited the Civil Rights Movement? The whole environmental movement, as such, has in many ways exploited that nightmare. And I agree, there is an absolute necessity here to address our use of fossil fuels, carbon emissions, pollution, and political, even personal equilibrium with the world. But revolutions are built upon fear. Reform, on all of its platforms, is built upon hope in a better world. Hope is stronger than fear. That,” the Minster said, somehow distilling the complex issue of environmentalism into a single statement, “is essential to my message.”
Sometimes I wonder if it was hope or fear that drove my ancestors from Denmark? War, economics, and employment all played a part in that calculation I’m told. When I remember my afternoon with Grandpa who, at 92, was still designing, constructing, and teaching a young boy how to build a BBQ, I understand the spirit, even the essence of a Dane. Considered the “Friendliest People in the World,” lessons of cooperation are not born in a vacuum, but from practical experience they’ve comported into a new world order. This model of democracy is a result of 600 years of trial and error; from which the most politically powerful nation on earth was able to adapt, innovate, and share its standard for green technology throughout the modern world. Our relations with the Middle East, foreign oil, and the fraying ozone layer notwithstanding, I wonder if we can learn from history? Or if were sadly destined to rise, fall and redeem ourselves? I guess we’ll just have to see which way the wind blows.